Islamic Governance in Theory and Practice

This is a narrative of an ‘insider’ of the revolution of 1979 and in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “What went wrong in Islamic Republic of Iran?” is the major question that I am trying to answer. My response is ‘theocracy’, which entails an ideological understanding of Islam, misunderstanding of the key-concept of law, replacing it with decrees of jurist-ruler, implementing sharia as state law, having the dream of “Islam is the solution”, and ignoring modernity. My presentation is rooted in my personal experience of the revolution of 1979 and Islamic Republic of Iran. I started as a devotee of revolution, tried to reform the post-revolutionary regime through Islamic knowledge, and now am thinking on the structural reform in Islamic theology and ethics, and a secular democratic regime.

Let’s start with “The Revolution of 1979”. We can compare four terminologies used to describe this great event: revolution of Iranians, Islamic revolution, revolutions of Iranian Shi’ite clergies, and revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini (nihzat-i Imam Khomeini). These are not only abstract labels but indicate four different understandings of revolution. They are the processes of evolutions from a public national event for Iranians – that the majority of them were Muslims and had religious motives too – to a personal leader-oriented regime.

We should not forget that the policies of Pahlavai dynasty, CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 against liberal nationalist prime-minister Mohammad Mosaddeq had the most important impact on providing the context in Iran for the idea of Islamic governance with an intense anti-US tendency. If that liberal secular government could had continued, if the arbitrary rule of Shah for 25 years was not imposed on Iranians, if all constitutional freedom of Iranians were not banned by a ‘client state’, we would not have Islamic governance. Who should be blamed?! This big mistake should not be repeated.

A realistic analysis depends on understanding the role of other internal and external players in the event such as Marxist militant groups and Saddam Hussain. Also, there were two different approaches among the Iranian Muslim revolutionary activists on that time, fundamentalists and somehow liberal Islamists. The political atmosphere was foggy and ambiguous. The revolutionary Muslim fundamentalists hijacked the new regime at least since 1981. We should distinguish Islamic Republic from the revolution of 1979. It is famous that the revolution was based on Nahj al-Balagha (the sermons, letters and maxims of Imam ‘Ali) virtue-based and the Islamic Republic that is based on Tawdih al-Masa’il (the handbook of juridical Fatwas). They are completely deferent issues, i.e. two different approaches to Islam.         

The Islamic Republic suffers from four major shortcomings from the beginning. I discuss them briefly as four ‘dualities’.

The duality of command and law

The Iranian theocracy has been based on the ruler’s command not on the rule of law. The ruler’s command is above constitution and other rules. The rules are made for restriction of the citizens, not limiting the rulers’ power. The law in the terminology of Ayatollah Khomeini is Islamic ordinances, not bills made by parliament. The ruler’s command is practically divine and infallible, but man-made rule is corrigible. We can examine this vital point in regards to three governmental branches, i.e. legislative power, judiciary power, and executive power; and demonstrate that there is no separation of powers at all under the centrality of jurist-ruler’s command. This is the first key-concept of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The clerical aristocracy or the guardianship of the jurist-ruler (wilayat faqih)

Guardianship of the jurist-ruler means the absolute superiority of the jurist-ruler’s decision over the decisions of the representatives of the citizens. This style of ruling is in direct opposition to democracy. Under this system of rule, the votes of the citizens are respected, if and only if they do not violate the commands or even intentions of the jurist-ruler. The jurist ruler and his representatives have veto power in any area of the public domain. Of course, semi-democracy is accepted under the umbrella of the guardianship of the jurist-ruler, but not above it.

The Islamic Republic is a competitive-authoritarian or electoral-authoritarian regime with facade democracy or quasi democracy. It is a hybrid regime. The so-called Islamic theocracy is incompatible with democracy in several respects. First Islamic theocracy lacks any institutions for the people’s supervision of government. Second, it reduces popular sovereignty to the public sovereignty of Muslims. Third, it excludes women from positions that traditional sharia bans them from holding. Fourth, Islamic theocracy violates the principle of political equality in terms of religious discrimination, gender discrimination, and discrimination based on the authority of Islamic jurists. Fifth Islamic theocracy violates the principle of public decision-making about regulations and policies in all matters. It was the second key-concept.

Implementation of Shari’a

Shari’a has been understood as the rules of the theocracy. These religious or divine rules are unchangeable and specify the duties of human beings toward themselves, toward God, and toward each other. The jurists infer Shari’a as a set of law/rules from the Qur’an, the tradition of the prophets, the teachings of the Shi’ite Imams, and the reason (‘aql). Shari’a is understood not only as law, but also codified law, and more than this as state law, and all of them are wrong! The fixed rigid corpus of law which belonged to early Islam does not work in other conditions and contexts. Shari’a is merged with diversity, and free will of the believers in the temporal world. Making it obligatory as state law that is based on governmental force and punishment ruins it completely. Power, especially absolute power destroys Shari’a and changes godliness and piety to hypocrisy and duplicity. Shari’a is a very strong element in monitoring and criticizing political power, but it will be the first victim of Islamic governance.      

Ayatollah Khomeini understood very soon that traditional Shari’a does not work as law in modern times, he thought that using secondary ordinances such as necessity determined by the high majority of the parliament could be a solution. The secondary ordinances block and freeze the primary Shari’a ordinances in the time of necessity. But administration could not be based on such a restricted technique.

He favored a new technique called expediency-based ordinances or governmental ordinances. It is a new version of wilayat fagih, the absolute guardianship of jurist ruler. His authority is not only over the constitution, but also over Shari’a. For achieving the expediency of the regime or system, or Islam or Muslims, the jurist ruler has this right to suspend the primary Shari’a ordinances. It includes all primary rituals such as pilgrimage or prayer, or human interactions such as business or partnership in investment and profit (mudaribah). The protection of the regime takes precedence i.e. above everything including overall Shari’a ordinances. It was a revolutionary invocation and so effective for resolving the problems of Islamic Republic quickly. But it is the starting point of secularization of Shi’ite fiqh by the hand of the funder of Islamic Republic.

Taking into account the regime expediency is the habit of any nation state, but here there are at least two concerns. First by which criterion does the jurist ruler decide the final decision for this authoritative expediency ordinance? The fiqh does not give him this ability. This is secular knowledge and modern sciences related to administration and complex social engineering. Second why do we need jurist ruler and Islamic governance if traditional Shari’a is unable of resolving socio-political problems? I think Ayatollah Khomeini ended himself what he started. The was the third key-concept.

The slogan of “Islam as the Solution of Everything”

This slogan reduces modern sciences to the designed traps of the adversarial West aiming to destroy Islam. This pessimistic opinion about empirical sciences, humanities and social sciences, and consequently distrusting modern sciences, makes traditional Islamic sciences, especially fiqh, the major source of decision-making in public domain. The first accused sciences were political sciences, economics, law, sociology, managements, and recently environment. In contrast, ideologues of the Islamic Republic started to establish ‘Islamic humanities’ or ‘Islamic social sciences’, and even ‘Islamic sciences’ (including empirical sciences), repeating the discredited experience of the Soviet Union in 20th century.  This is the clear consequence of turning their back to the modern sciences because of western roots of these sciences. According to this ignorance and misunderstanding of modernity, democracy and human rights are only two products of this ‘western ideology’ that should be rejected! As a result, ideologues of the Islamic Republic spoke of concepts such as ‘Islamic democracy’, and ‘Islamic human rights’ which are anti-democracy and anti-human rights.This was the fourth key-concept.

What I described could be called the crisis of legitimacy and credibility of the theory and practice of Islamic governance in Shi’ite thought. I want to finish my paper with hope and a solution. Islamic thought needs deep reform.

Sharia is virtues, ethical values, and moral norms that the scripture and the Prophet outlined. Virtues, ethical values, and moral norms are permanent. Shari’a should be understood as a virtue-based not in a law-based framework. Secularism at least in its American model protects religiosity of the citizens better than theocracy. Secularism or mosque-state differentiation is the approach of liberal Muslims in politics for protecting faith and ethics. In this model, Muslims are able to follow their political goals in civil society in equal and fair competitions. Islam as the religion of mercy, dignity, justice, peace and love represents its beauty through 1) a reconstructed theology based on the love of One God, 2) Shari’a as the set of virtues and moral values, and 3) secular nation-state. It is structural reform from inside by the hands and investment and design of Iranians.

Iran’s 1979 Revolution: 40 Years Onward

Iranian Studies Program, MacMillan Center, Yale University

Feb 7, 2019